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Divination through reading the cards, also known as cartomancy, attracts those who love cryptic symbolism. Don’t think “cryptic” to mean “incredibly difficult to understand” in this case. Tarot cards are metaphorical in nature, but are usually simplistic and direct in design. Divination itself, or communing with the divine (or spirit work, and communication, if you prefer), can be ambiguous when starting out, but I think tarot is a great introduction to identifying personal and universal truths. Tarot is a great psychological tool for introspection. Whatever your reason is for picking up tarot, I hope this introduction will give you a general idea of what to expect while learning to read the cards, and provide suitable references to help you explore tarot further.
The following will provide descriptions on the fundamentals of tarot reading using the Universal Rider-Waite Tarot as a reference. Sources will be provided if the reader is hoping to become more familiar with the versatile meanings of the tarot cards, discover new tarot spreads, and be introduced to tarot decks that will help them on the beginning of their journey.
What To Expect From Tarot Reading
I want to start with what expectations you should have when it comes to reading tarot, because what we see on television has tremendously misinterpreted it (the Death card doesn’t mean you’re going to die, and the Devil doesn't mean Satan is coming by for a visit). When you read tarot cards, you need to think in context and metaphors. You’ll want to ask about your future, your love life, how someone perceives you, advice for a problem, and so many other things, but you’re not always going to get a direct answer. There isn’t a “yes” or “no” written on any of the cards. There isn’t a specific date on the cards either. So, if you shuffle your deck wondering if your wedding dreams will come true, and when it will happen, don’t expect a, “Yes. You’ll have your perfect wedding on September 14, 2030, at 3:45 PM.” Instead, you’re going to explore your own characteristics, or the characteristics of the person you’re reading for, reflect on the situation in question, understand what you can and can’t control, and be offered an action or solution that can change the situation. Divination is about the power of intuition more than anything. You’ll be encouraged to embrace authenticity in order to understand the messages from the other side or from your subconscious.
You should expect that whatever spirits, entities, or energy is communicating with you is geared towards truth. If you’re suspicious about cartomancy, this form of divination may not be for you. If you prefer to interpret the truth of life through quantitative and qualitative data then develop theories based on your findings, you probably don’t want metaphors and symbols in your face. If you’re truly interested in tarot, but you’re not the spiritual type, it may be an interesting psychological experiment. I just want to be real with you, and let you know that the truth as you see it is what’s going to define the impact of tarot reading for you. What you should expect from reading tarot is gaining a revelation of your own perception of reality, whether you feel connected to divination or not.
Organizing and Understanding Tarot
The first tarot cards were simply playing cards from the fifteenth century (some argue they’ve been around even longer, and originated from Egypt). They are now categorized by Major and Minor Arcana from a total of 78 cards. Arcana is another word for “secret” so the Major Arcana cards are meant to have greater intricacy in their "secrets." There are 22 Major Arcana that have been interpreted as archetypes in stories, myths, legends, and so on. The other 56 minor arcana are organized in four suits: swords, wands, pentacles (coins), and chalices (cups). During a reading, the Major Arcana are considered to have greater influence. They often represent major events depending on the context of the question given, and in the Rider-Waite tarot, the reader should identify symbols that correlate with the position the card is in, and how it relates to the one who asked the question. Minor Arcana cards connect to the message with their own symbols, and although their influence isn’t as prominent, it will often hone in on details regarding the event the Major Arcana identifies with. There are many tarot deck card designers who caught onto this, and made it so the art of the entire deck tells a story. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of tarot; it shows how various factors in a situation are connected.
Archetypes, Associations, and Reversals
Most tarot decks will be illustrated with traditional symbols in mind. The suits of the Minor Arcana especially are associated with the four elements:
- Swords represent Air
- Wands represent Fire
- Chalices represent Water
- Pentacles represent Earth
Those same elements will be associated with specific aspects of life:
- Air is associated with thought, mental energy, swiftness, decision making, logic
- Fire is associated with passion, will power, courage, motivation, desire
- Water is associated with emotion, relationships, connection, flexibility, reflection
- Earth is associated with structure, reality, prosperity, realistic goals
With the Minor Arcana, it’s also important to pay attention to how the designer of the deck presents the items of each suit. For example, the three of swords piercing a heart in the Rider-Waite deck represents pain, and being broken-hearted; because swords are associated with the mind, we can connect the position of the swords piercing the heart as a metaphor for processing pain or grieving.
The Minor Arcana is more direct with its symbolism; the Major Arcana, however, requires greater depth. The Major Arcana is interpreted as archetypes of a story. The archetypal nature of the Major Arcana is supposed to connect with the person getting the reading; they’re the protagonist. Each archetype has a role to play during the reading, and often provide a message regarding their purpose. The Fool, the first Major Arcana, represents new beginnings or a fresh start. The Fool’s journey could go either way depending on whether he walks off the cliff, or if he notices the dog trying to warn him. The Fool is an archetype of innocence and naivety. Those of us with a greater sensitivity to this metaphorical energy will feel our stomachs drop, or a small adrenaline rush from the anticipation of adventure and change.
Once you understand the meaning of each card, you must also understand their reversals. Before I go into that, you should know that not every tarot reader considers reversals to be necessary. For me, it depends on the deck. Now, reversals are expected to represent the opposing meaning of the card, but that’s not always the case. The Fool represents innocence and new beginnings; does its reversal represent corruption and a short-lived adventure? Not necessarily. If The Fool falls off the cliff and somehow survives, he’s learned from his recklessness now knowing to look before he leaps from that point forward. On the other hand, the reversal of the three of swords represents complete healing, and/or forgiveness. Reversals can be black and white, many shades of gray, or wondrously colorful.
The Major of the Minor Arcana—The Court Cards
The court cards (pages, knights, queens, and kings) are special in each suit, I find, because they rank in power differently than the ace through ten cards. Just as the Major Arcana have prominent, archetypal figures, the court cards are archetypal in a sense. Pages are childlike, but on the verge of maturing; knights apply clear action and intent to their cause; queens are nurturing and lead in their own way; kings lead as well, but must be open to growth and counsel. As most of the Minor Arcana point out certain details for the reader to pay attention to, the court cards have the ability to encourage or caution like the Major Arcana, which shouldn’t be ignored. There are no other wand cards that warn against temperamental or impulsiveness while in a leadership position like the King of Wands, nor are there any chalice cards that scold immaturity and poorly timed escapism like the Page of Chalices.
When Should I Start Doing Tarot Spreads?
Whenever you want. There’s no better way to learn the cards than through experience. You may want to start with single card spreads, or three-card spreads (representing the past, present, and future, or the situation, an action to take, and the probable outcome). Keep your questions and spreads simple starting out to develop familiarity with the cards and their meanings. There’s no rush.
Get The Rider-Waite Deck
What If The Simpler Spreads Aren’t Enough?
If you feel comfortable with remembering the basic meanings of the cards AND have been flexible enough to recognize the meaning of a card based on its position in a spread while regarding the context of the question, then be adventurous and try other spreads. I highly recommend the Complete Book of Tarot Spreads by Evelin Burger and Johannes Fiebig. I have found their book to be so much fun to look through, and it really helped me see how versatile the cards can become.
Okay, I Need Other Ways To Get Familiar With The Cards
There’s an app for that. I recommend The Golden Thread Tarot App and the Labyrinthos Academy Tarot App. Developed by Labyrinthos, these two apps are an easy, casual way to understand the arcana. If you’re more of a book person, I recommend Tarot For Beginners: A Practical Guide to Reading the Cards by Barbara Moore. This book provides concise descriptions of each card from three different decks (using the Rider-Waite deck as a foundational reference) to showcase how the deck’s design provides varying interpretations. I love that the book provides core meanings for each arcana while being very open-minded. It's also available on Kindle.
I’m A Witch Wanting To Try Out Tarot Spells
I recommend 365 Tarot Spells: Creating Magic in Each Day by Sasha Graham, but don’t be afraid to try creating spells on your own. Visualization and intent are important with, well, every spell, and I think for tarot spells you really need to understand the symbolism of the cards you're using, and how that will influence your intent as you cast. The book can help (it's available on Kindle too), but bringing meaning to each card is ultimately up to you.
I’m Just Into Psychology, Archetypes, and Think Tarot Is A Great Self-Help Tool
Fantastic. Try Tarot and the Archetypal Journey: The Jungian Path from Darkness to Light by Sallie Nichols. As the title describes, it's based in Jungian psychology, and focuses on "individuation." I also would like to mention Labyrinthos again, because their apps and teachings of tarot focus on the psychological aspects of tarot as well. When I was hesitant to dive into tarot, their apps pulled me in with their practical approach to symbolism, consciousness, and applying personal revelation to past trauma. It's very retrospective.
Recommended Beginner Decks
I leave you with my top three beginner tarot decks. Thanks for reading!